What is asbestos? The actual word “asbestos” comes from the Greek language and means “indestructible or impervious”. Before there was such a negative definition associated with asbestos because of its nasty health effects, the word was synonymous with the following terms: strong, pliable and, most importantly, resistant. Asbestos material is resistant to heat, which is a chiefly important factor in why it was the preferred building material in many industry from commercial building to automotive.
Asbestos is made up of a set of strong, durable fibers that are not just resistant to heat, but resistant to outside toxins and other chemicals as well. Those fibers are almost impossible to break, which is why the substance was so widely used before 1980. When mixed with other materials, asbestos can be strengthened, which is why it was the staple ingredient for use in hundreds of fields, including residential buildings, maritime (ships and other water vehicles) and automotive, and more.
After many decades, scientists began to understand the health risks associated with asbestos and its use was discontinued. That was not before asbestos had the chance to affect many industries. One of the industries that was heavily affected by asbestos overuse was the mining industry. There were many diseases and ailments associated with asbestos use, including mesothelioma. After years of exposure, thousands of asbestos miners developed debilitating health issues and diseases. For example, talc is a material that you might be familiar with and one that was made possible through mining. Because of their prolonged exposure to asbestos, talc miners were among those who suffered greatly with various asbestos-related health issues.
Asbestos was arguably the favored building material of many industries for decades. So, it goes without saying that traces of asbestos remain in many older structures. As a result, the asbestos removal industry has continued to boom even after the use of the substance was discontinued in the early 1980s. Some of the most common places asbestos was used include:
On an everyday level, asbestos has been used in a wide variety of home appliances including our beloved coffee pots and the toasters we use to make our perfectly golden bagels. There are other appliances you might be surprised to learn have traces of asbestos. Items such as portable heaters and dishwashers, irons, and even wood burning stoves can contain the harmful substance. Up until as recent as 1980, asbestos could be found in most handheld hair dryers. To think, people thought using AquaNet was the most harm they were doing to their hair back then!
Even though asbestos use was phased out in the early 1980s, the material can still be found in a number of products. And, it is not just old buildings that contain the largest amounts of the substance. In fact, it is not uncommon to find asbestos in outdated and old-fashioned appliances that can be considered antiques. The electrical cords are where most of the asbestos was contained in antique and discontinued appliances. If you have older appliances that you believe may contain asbestos, it is best to replace them. Trying to repair the suspected areas of contamination may result in disturbing the asbestos, which causes the toxins to be released into the air resulting in and increased risk of contracting asbestos-related health issues. So, do yourself a favor and skip the urge to "do-it-yourself". Replace all old appliances to ensure an asbestos free home.
While everyone has their own ideas about some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, most would agree that firefighting is on the list. Even though it is not as widely publicized as police deaths per year, there are over 100 casualties per year for firefighters. If you are like most people, you might attribute most of those deaths to things like smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and building accidents from collapsing debris and complete structural failures. However, in the line of duty firefighters often encounter toxic materials from old buildings on fire that can cause chronic diseases and even death. Among the many toxins they are exposed to, none may be as deadly as asbestos.
Asbestos can be a silent killer. Left untouched, the substance is not harmful. But, once it is disturbed and airborne, it weaponizes; damaging the lungs of anyone who breathes it in. When firefighters are in the midst of doing their heroic job, it is easy for asbestos to be one of the last things on their minds. However, even limited exposure to airborne asbestos can cause lung cancer, including a more aggressive form cancer known as mesothelioma. This slow-forming, but deadly type of cancer produces ambiguous symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain. Because of its all-too-common symptoms and long forming time (between 20-40 years in some cases), firefighters can be routinely exposed to asbestos before ever being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Asbestos can be found in various areas of a residence or commercial building. Insulation, drywall and other materials can contain the harmful material. It is an especially common substance found in older structures. During a fire, there is a real possibility for structural collapses, giving way to disturbed asbestos participles being released into the atmosphere. If there were any areas that needed repair before firefighters were called to the scene, there is a risk that any asbestos will become airborne.
So, how can firefighters stay safe while doing their job?
Most fire units outfit their fighters with the best suits on the market for fire safety. An SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) is a standard part of many firesuits. If the acronym looks like the word “scuba”, that is great because the function of it works in much the same way. In this suit, the firefighter is equipped with a breathing air source that resembles the ones worn by scuba divers. It is specifically designed to provide protection against toxic substances such as asbestos. Some SCBA suits even come with a high efficiency air filters (HEPA) to scrub the and purify the contained air of more than just toxins and chemicals.
A word of advice. When the smoke of a fire clears, some firefighters may decide that is the perfect time to take off the SCBA gear. Sure, sometimes the SCBA can get steamy, heavy, and cumbersome and you may think that because the fire risk has passed that it is safe to remove your gear. However, it is best to choose safety over comfort. As well, research has shown that that there is an elevated risk of high levels of toxins in the air such as PVC and asbestos even after the fire has abated.
Being a firefighter is definitely hard work, but is surely rewarding. Observing these few tips as well as having the correct safety gear can reduce asbestos exposure risk firefighters often face.